Sabbath Bus Service in Israel Finds a Detour Around Religious Status Quo

Public-private partnerships exploit legal loopholes to bring weekend public transportation to growing number of communities.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish protesters in Jerusalem's Shabbat Square, January 7, 2015.
Emil Salman

Five local governments in Israel are introducing bus service on the Jewish Sabbath, finding legal ways to circumvent laws against public transportation on Shabbat. In the near future, residents of Arad, Be’er Sheva, Herzliya, Kfar Sava and the communities of the Emek Hefer Regional Council who do not own cars will be able to get to the beach and to entertainment districts between Friday and Saturday evening.

In some communities the official operators will be the local governments, while in others the service will be provided by private businesses.

A private member’s bill to permit local public transportation on Shabbat was rejected by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation on Sunday. The draft law, which was proposed by opposition party Yesh Atid legislators Yael German, Karin Elharrar and Yoel Razvozov, would allow local governments to operate Shabbat routes using minibuses.

“We understand that on the national level there’s no chance, the law does not allow public transportation on Shabbat and apparently it will remain unchanged. We want to begin the change from the ground up, via the local governments,” said Shuki Friedman, the director of the Israel Democracy Institute’s Center for Religion, Nation, and State.

Olivier Fitoussi

But although the change in operating public transportation on Shabbat is not on the horizon, local initiatives that exploit loopholes in the existing law, are creating a situation that may lead to the beginning of the change in the status quo.

“Most Israelis want there to be public transportation on Shabbat, but an ultra-Orthodox Jewish minority is vetoing the issue. Our message to the local councils is that they can do a great deal within the framework of the law,” Friedman told Haaretz.

There are very limited public transportation services in Israel on weekends, which are based on the transportation regulations. In most cities no buses or trains operate on Shabbat. The clause in the traffic regulations that prohibits public transportation on days of rest was passed in 1991, and until then the law was vague. According to the regulations, no license will be given to operate a public bus line on the days of rest (Friday night, Shabbat, holiday eves and holidays) — except on a route that serves people traveling to hospitals, border communities or non-Jewish communities, or to provide a service that is vital for public security.

But the restrictions in the transportation regulations enable local governments and private entrepreneurs to find legal loopholes and to exploit them in order to operate public transportation on Shabbat and holidays. In Tel Aviv the operation of sherut shared shuttles is based on the claim that operating a public transportation service on Shabbat is a solution for a transportation need, as noted in the transportation regulations.

Although the law itself makes it difficult to provide public transportation on Shabbat, it does not prevent it. The main obstacle is the prohibition against collecting money from the passengers. But the private entrepreneurs have found a multitude of creative ways of circumventing that, including the establishment of a cooperative whose members pay a lump sum for all the trips at the end of the month, or payment via an app and issuing the invoice after Shabbat.

A necessary service

A new initiative that is beginning this week is the Yambus project, which is the first of its kind in Be’er Sheva. It’s a private initiative that will operate in the format of two buses that will pick people up on Shabbat from a number of bus stops in the city and take them to the beach in Ashkelon. As opposed to what one might expect, the project has not aroused opposition among the city’s religious community.

In an interview on Radio Darom, Ashkelon Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yehuda Dery, brother of Interior Minister Arye Dery, said that because the initiative is private and on a small scale, he doesn’t think it has to be fought publicly. At the same time, he added that he thinks that “there’s a legal issue” that must be examined, alluding to the questionable legality of the initiative.

The Emek Hefer Regional Council, which includes 43 communities, will begin to operate free public transportation starting on July 1. Council head Rani Idan said that “we haven’t encountered opposition, only about five percent of those living in the council are religious and people want this right on Shabbat.”

Last week Haaretz reported that Herzliya will operate free transportation on Shabbat and holidays. The buses will not enter religious neighborhoods. Nearby Ra’anana already offers bus service on Fridays to and from the city’s main entertainment areas. Kfar Sava is introducing a sherut taxi scheme throughout the town, in cooperation with the Transportation Ministry, as in Tel Aviv.

Arad city officials are close to signing a deal with a local bus company on service between the southern city and the beach in Ashkelon. Moshe Kavas, an Arad city council member representing the religious community, told Haaretz that there was no religious battle in the city.

Last week the Israeli Shabbat Coalition, comprising 20 secular, religious and mixed organizations and city council members, held a launch event. Its goal is to focus on legal loopholes that enable the local councils to operate services on Shabbat, in order to initiate a change in the status quo on Shabbat. In addition to these organizations, last year there were three new private transportation initiatives. Shabbes in Jerusalem and Noa Tanua in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, operate throughout the year, and a transportation service to the beach operates during the summer months in Rishon Letzion.